School Leadership: Mourinho versus Solskjaer

Sulky Jose…?

This was, originally,  going to start with the question, “Do you want to be led in your school by Jose Mourinho or Ole Gunar Solskjaer?” Imagine a situation where the interview process for the new Headship at your school has got through to the last stage and there are only two candidates chosen for final interview. The two surprise candidates, disillusioned with the world of top flight football management, have decided it’s time to “give something back” and devote themselves to State school leadership. Mourinho and Solskjaer have polished their Powerpoints, rehearsed their assembly and have mugged up on everything there is to know about Knowledge-Rich curricula, Zero Tolerance behaviour approaches and direct instruction. The staff room waits with bated breath. Which one would you rather have as your leader?

Or, smiley softie Ole?

Bloody Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Everything was going so well after he took over the reins at Manchester United from Jose Mourinho in December last year. The scowling, miserable, sour faced bad loser Mourinho was finally despatched, though not, disappointingly, on Christmas Eve. It would have been fitting to have seen him trudge homeward through the snowy streets of Manchester, in time to spend a grudging Christmas with his nearest and dearest, complaining about the inadequate presents he had been bought. (“What? A pair of socks? Don’t you know my record? Three Premier League titles. Three. Respect. Respect.”)

Mourinho had turned Manchester United into the Theresa May of English football: cautious, wooden, frightened, ineffective. For May, that was no great tragedy. There was no fall from a great height, no previous evidence of charisma or invention or audacity. She had always been distinguished by her mediocrity. But United had flair and panache in their DNA. The team of Edwards, Charlton, Best, Law, Giggs and Cantona had been reduced to shuffling, shabby incompetence. It was embarrassing.

And then the Roundhead was replaced by the Cavalier. Mercifully released from Mourinho’s stifling safety first approach, where players operated under a culture of fear, they responded to Solskjaer’s reign like cattle let out of the winter sheds into Spring pasture. They gambolled. They leaped. They  ran friskily. They played games with a sense of joy rediscovered. Pogba once again was the midfield colossus from the French World Cup winning side. Lukaku looked like a forward who knew how to terrorise defences and score goals. Rashford tore into teams  with direct running and close control. And they won.

And for the blogger always on the lookout for the easy metaphor, it was a gift from heaven. The parallel with the current two tribes approach to School Leadership was uncanny. You could either have the New Brutalism, in the form of Mourinho, or the person-centered, relationship-nurturer of Solskjaer. And with Mourinho, and the Zero Tolerance advocates, you got systems, functionalism, fear and compliance. But no love. No passion. No commitment. And, as a direct result of that, no long term performance. No personal growth. No sustainability. The Roundhead Mourinho was yesterday’s man, old fashioned virtues repackaged for the modern age. You blame everyone else when things go wrong. Demonise the previous regime for sloppy, muddle headed progressivism. Blame the players, or the kids. Or the teachers. How wonderful when it didn’t work and it seemed that Mourinho had been comprehensively found out.

And at first, the human face that was Solskjaer worked brilliantly. They began to win again. Words of confidence worked their magic and players began to express themselves and their innate talent blossomed again. Trust the players, treat them like adults, listen to them and all will be well. Just like in schools. Fear will never produce anything more than compliance. Love and loyalty, on the other hand, move mountains.

And then they gave him a full time contract and the wheels fell off again.

Damn, damn, damn, damn, damn. My beautiful school leadership metaphor shrivelling up on the vine with every passing game. The players, like the naughty kids, started taking the piss again, presumably because they knew that nice Ole wouldn’t do anything about it. Not even give them a bollocking. There seemed to be no consequence for their actions, so why not mess around until the end of the season, picking up a huge pay check and knowing that you’d be off to better club in the summer. So what if Alan Shearer calls you out on Match of the Day on Saturday night for not working hard enough? Big deal. You could buy Alan Shearer ten times over.

And I recalled an incident from my time as a Deputy Head, watching a crowd of naughty Year 10 kids summoned to the head’s office, exclusions pending. With my adjacent office door ajar, I listened, fascinated, to their conversation. It was like the scene from “Kes” with the smokers outside the head’s door, except this time without the sweet, innocent lad who gets the cane for nothing and without the swivel eyed psychopathic headteacher wielding his cane like a light sabre.

As the Head breezed into his office past them, inviting them in as he passed, one lad turned to his mates and said, sotto voce, “Watch me get out of this.” And he did. Ten minutes later he walked out, having given an Oscar winning performance as the contrite sinner who had seen the error of his ways, the head’s chummy words of encouragement ringing in his ears. As he turned to go down the corridor, I caught, through the crack in my office door, the smirk the lad gave his fellow ne’er-do-wells. It was chilling.

The Head went home that day feeling good about himself. He’d shown his human side. He’d connected with a difficult child in difficult circumstances. He’d established a relationship and saved the child from another exclusion. But actually, he’d let the child and the family down and the rest of the school who had to field the consequences of his maximum tolerance everyday in the corridors and the classrooms.

Most of the time the guy was a great head. He did a very good job at a difficult school. He emphasised relationships at the same time as cracking down on behaviour issues and he definitely improved the school. If you had to categorise him according to the metaphor, he would definitely be a Solskjaer rather than a Mourinho.

You remember that wonderful piece of research about school leaders from a couple of years ago that categorised Heads as Architects, Surgeons, Philosophers, Soldiers and Accountants? The one that disappeared without trace because the coming wave of movers and shakers didn’t like the conclusions? All classroom teachers would have been able to recognise the categories. Many headteachers would have raised a sceptical eyebrow because they like to think of themselves as visionaries or missionaries or messiahs. Sorry Heads – gross and cheap stereotyping there. I know many of you are fabulous human beings, particularly those of you who are reading this blog. Follow the link below. It deserves to be resurrected and followed up because it’s never been more important than now, when Surgeons bestride the Education Stage, lionised, rewarded. Mourinhos all of them, at the height of his powers, before he got found out.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-37717211

There is another way to do it. Not Mourinho or Solskjaer. Not iron discipline or trendy, progressive  chaos. There is no need to polarise in this way. Let’s have ethical leadership that consults, engages, trusts staff, listens to students. That establishes and maintains good behaviour without treating children like convicts. That takes learning seriously without being enslaved by examination outcomes. That has a curriculum that serves the children, not the floor targets.

And, to finally flog my football metaphor to death, the beautiful game has, as it always does, the answers. Or some of them at least. There are four English teams in the two major European finals this year. And guess what? Three of them are managed by outstanding leaders: Guardiola, Klopp, and Pochettino. (Sorry Sarri – that chainsmoking hiding your tab from the cameras is just too Andy Capp and 1970s for you to be a serious candidate).

All lead by example, know their players, treat them like adults, give them responsibility, insist on the highest standards, allow people the space to make a mistake, turn them into better players. So no, my original question was wrong. Do you want to be led in your school by Mourinho or Solskjaer? Neither. Give us a version of Guardiola, Klopp or Pochettino instead. And watch everybody fly.

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